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Personal Cybersecurity 101

We usually know what’s right for us, but don’t necessarily do it. We swap vegetables and fruits for junk food. Instead of exercising or going for a walk, we binge-watch Netflix. And despite seeing news about privacy and data breaches nearly every single day, we still don’t do much to protect ourselves. 

So maybe it’s time to Marie Kondo all the digital data you accumulated and take care of it? There are a few easy things you can do to start living a more digitally conscious life. And you should do it. Because being hacked and have all your personal info stolen doesn’t spark joy.

 

Step 1: Change the attitude

Like with many healing programs, the first step is changing the attitude. “Protecting my data? Nobody cares about stealing my contact list!”, is very common yet wrong thinking. Many don’t protect their data simply because they think their personal details aren’t valuable to others. But here’s a catch – you possess information not only about yourself, but about others too. The email exchanges between you and your colleagues, photos from last weekend with your friends on your iPhone – you have so much info about other people. So if someone’s hacking you, they’re not getting info just about you. They’re getting info about everyone you know or have ever contacted. With all that information in your hands, you need to be more responsible for others’ sake too. 

 

Step 2: Perfect your passwords

Password managers. You’ve definitely heard this many times, but good passwords managers are the smallest, but the best thing you can do for yourself. Your favourite movie or a nickname reference are never gonna be a great security solution. 1Password or LastPass create strong and unique passwords for all your accounts and all you need to do it so remember one master key.

Length matters. Though password managers are a good start, there are still a few things you need to do. The master key you choose (or a password you’re creating yourself without a password manager), needs to be as robust as possible. Don’t go for less than 12 characters when picking your password. When it comes to them, length matters more than those unique characters and uppercase letters you might be used to.

Mix it up. If you use any of those special characters, don’t put them all together. Most of us usually put them next to each other, because it might be easier to remember. But we’re just making hackers’ job easier. They anticipate that you’ll be putting those characters in a specific order based on some kind of logic, so be one step ahead and separate them. Mix it up!

Seriously, mix it up. The same advice goes to your password usage – don’t use the same one for multiple accounts. If you’re using a password manager – you’ve already taken care of this. But if you prefer memorizing passwords, pick a different one for a different account. You don’t want your Zara.com account password to cost your banking password. 

Trust no Chrome. You’ve probably seen the option to let the browser remember your password for you. And though those intentions might be good, Chrome and all the other browsers aren’t proper password managers. As nice this feature might be, often their security is undocumented. If you’re reluctant to pay money for a really good password manager, then Dashlane is a great free alternative. But please, don’t trust your security to a browser. 

Two-factor all the way. We know you don’t want to hear this, but… Passwords today aren’t enough. And two-factor authentication is an added layer of protection. Though setting up your 2FA with an SMS text is good and applauded action, it’s still rather risky. So consider authenticator apps that are a more trustworthy choice. Google Authenticator and Authy are two of the most popular choices, but if you’re already using password managers 1Password and LastPass, you can use their 2FA feature as well. 

 

Step 3: Lookout for phishing emails

Listen to your gut. Hackers today are putting a lot of effort into making sure that fake emails and texts look as authentic as possible. But our sixth sense can usually be our saving grace. If you receive an email from someone you don’t know, someone you didn’t expect to contact you or else, don’t proceed to open those letters or, god forbid, clicking on the links. If some unknown online service tries contacting you and is sending links or attachments, better go separately online and check what they’re about. 

Trust in step 2. If you’re doing all the healthy stuff, aka using strong and safe passwords with password managers, you’ll be a tougher target to phishers. Remember, you’re protecting information not only about yourself but about others too. 

Use critical thinking. When you hear about someone being phished, you think, “Oh, I would never click on that email”, right? But these emails and texts are crafted in such a way that they would evoke curiosity, trust and urgency. So, next time you get an email that comes from someone you don’t know and that have this weird sense of urgency, don’t just blindly trust it. Think that maybe it was crafted this way so you would click it. 

 

Step 4: Clean your digital junk

Spring clean your devices. Old or new, devices can be stolen and in the wrong hands, they can bring a lot of harm. So organize all that stuff you’ve accumulated over the years. First take care of your old, no longer used devices by digitally and physically destroying the data. Here are a few tips if you have no clue where to start. After that, take care of the current devices by sorting through your desktop and folders. Delete info that is no longer necessary and back the stuff you want to keep up the cloud service or a password-protected external hard-drive. 

Go deep into the email. Your email is probably the most valuable thing. It has so much information about you and with it, hackers can do a lot of harm. So how do you protect it? Delete old, unnecessary emails and export the emails you want to keep, to the cloud or the hard-drive. Of course, don’t forget the old email accounts you don’t use anymore either. Maybe it’s time to delete them and get rid of the unnecessary risk? But just don’t stop there. Instead of deciding which email you wish to delete by looking into the subject line (‘cause ain’t nobody got time to read the whole thing), try and search for certain keywords in your inbox and see what pops up. Think about the most sensitive information someone could find about you and search it. It will be much easier and faster to spot potentially harmful emails. 

Get rid of old apps. Again, look through all the old apps you have on your devices and get rid of them. Maybe they’re backing up your photos for some reason? You don’t want 10 years worth of photos to be stored to some unknown server. The more old apps you have on your devices, the more exposure you get. However, just deleting the app isn’t enough. You also need to close the account and wipe out all the data possible, so that the app keeps as little information about you as possible. And since social networks are known to have the most complicated deactivating process, here’s a guide to a nice break-up.  

Think about the small things. With your devices and inboxes nice and clean, think about other things that might be potentially risky. Maybe you have photos of your IDs on your camera roll or have scanned documents with sensitive data? Limit the amount of information that could be stolen from your currently used devices as well. 

 

With all these steps done and completed, know that this process is never over. We accumulate more digital information than ever and it’s our responsibility to revise it frequently to minimize the potential harm. And to minimize the workload that comes with it, think more about the apps you download or the free trials you start. The conscious decisions you make in your everyday digital life will pay off as a safer, secure and a more private life.